CRAWFORD “CHEROKEE BILL” GOLDSBY – Through the magic of Hollywood, the most legendary figures of the old west, both lawmen and outlaws, have almost always been white. In reality, this was not the case, with some of the most well known people on both sides of the law in the old west being black. This is especially true of Crawford Goldsby, better known as Cherokee Bill, one of the most ruthless outlaws of his time. Born in Texas in 1876, Cherokee Bill was the son of a former Buffalo Soldier and a Cherokee Freedman. Cherokee Bill started his life of crime at age 18, when he shot another man in a dispute. He joined up with outlaws Bill and Jim Cook, and in the summer and fall of 1894, the Cook Gang terrorized much of Oklahoma, robbing and killing with little discretion. The gang split up in late 1894, and in January of 1895, Cherokee Bill was captured. His subsequent trial resulted in a death sentence, and on March 17, 1896, he was sent to the gallows. The day Cherokee Bill was set to be hung, he left behind two lasting memories for his legacy. Legend has it that when Cherokee Bill woke up on the morning of March 17, he said, “This is as good a day as any to die.” When he was taken to the gallows, and asked if he had any last words, Cherokee Bill stated for the record, “I came here to die, not make a speech.” He was dead a few minutes later at the age of 20.
761st BLACK PANTHER TANK BATTALION – All branches of the United States Military were still segregated during World War II, but it was during this time special all-black units were formed, despite the belief that black soldiers were inferior to whites. Among the all-black combat units to be activated, few are more legendary than the 761st Black Panther Tank Battalion. Deployed in Europe in 1944, the 761st became known for their fierce fighting abilities. Of course, they had to be fierce, as they were often used to spearhead attacks, making them the first in the line of fire. The 761st successfully opened a hole in Germany’s Siegfried Line, making room from Patton to lead the 4th Armored Division into Germany, which helped win the war. The 761st fought valiantly through much of Europe, and at the end of the war, they were among the first of American forces to join with the Russians in Austria to liberate the concentration camps at Steyr. Jackie Robinson had been in the 761st, but he was transferred out and faced a court-martial after refusing to sit in the back of a bus during the unit’s training in the south. The racism that Robinson stood up to was a regular occurrence for the 761st and other all-black units in the military.
Mary “Stagecoach Mary” Fields – Born a slave in Tennessee (most likely in 1832), Mary Fields, also known as “Stagecoach Mary,” would go on to become one of the most legendary figures in the settling of the Old West. After the Civil War, Fields made her way west, to Cascade County in Montana. She took a job working at a convent, but it ended poorly after she got into gunfight. She then tried running her own restaurant, but that too failed. It wasn’t until Fields took a job delivering the mail and driving a stagecoach in 1895, at the age of 63, that she found her true calling. Short tempered, fond of cigars, and willing to slug it out or shoot it out with any man, she earned a reputation as a dependable and fierce employee of the postal service, and also was rechristened Stagecoach Mary. According to the Great Falls Examiner, the newspaper that served Cascade County, Stagecoach Mary broke more noses in fights than anyone else in Montana. Stagecoach Mary delivered the mail until she was about 70 years old. After that, she opened her own laundry, and is said to have beaten a man who stiffed her on a bill. She died in 1914 of liver failure, caused in part by her many years of heavy drinking.
Bass Reeves – Born a slave in 1838, Bass Reeves escaped to freedom in the early 1860s. Fleeing north to the Indian Territories (Oklahoma), he lived for a time with different Native American tribes, becoming fluent in various languages. In 1875, U.S. marshal James Fagan recruited Reeves as a deputy U.S. marshal, in part because of his knowledge of Indian tribes and languages, but also because of his skill with a gun. Reeves quickly became a legendary deputy marshal, known not only for his abilities with a gun, but also as keen detective and a master of disguise. During his career he arrested over 3000 criminals, including some of the more notorious outlaws of the day, and killed 14 in the line of duty. In his time, Reeves was a well-known lawman whose exploits became the stuff of legend. But his career faded from memory over the years, overshadowed by men like Wyatt Earp. Reeves retired from the marshals in 1907, and passed away three years later. Some people have speculated that Reeves was the real-life inspiration for the Lone Ranger, though no proof of that has actually turned up, making the assertion nothing more than speculation.
BESSIE COLEMAN and WILLA BROWN – Two pioneering aviators, the life stories of both Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman and Willa Brown define courage and tenacity. Coleman was born to sharecropper parents—the tenth of thirteen children—and dreamed of a better life. She moved to Chicago in 1915, and worked as a manicurist in a barbershop, where tales of fighter pilots in World War I inspired her to learn to fly a plane. With no one in the United States willing to teach her, she learned French, and journeyed to Paris in 1920, where she studied aviation at the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Eventually, she became the first African-American woman to earn both an aviation pilot’s license and an international aviation pilot’s license. Willa Brown had been greatly influenced by Bessie Coleman, and began flying in 1934. She became the first African-American woman to get a commercial pilot’s license. Brown co-founded the National Airmen’s Association of America and the Coffey School of Aeronautics, both of which helped to train African-American pilots, many of whom would go on to become the 99th Pursuit Squadron of World War II, better known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Noble Johnson – Born in 1881, actor and filmmaker Noble Johnson appeared in his first movie in 1915. His career would span five decades, include 144 films, and incredibly, he never played an African-American character (although he did play many jungle savages. Johnson was a contemporary and friend of legendary actor Lon Chaney, Sr., and like Chaney, Johnson was a man of a thousand faces. During his career, Johnson played mostly Native Americans, an occasional Chinese, a Russian (as picture here in 1933’s Most Dangerous Game), and various monsters (he was helped by his 6’2” frame). Along with his brother George, he also started The Lincoln Motion Picture Company, a film production company started to create movies with positive images of blacks. Their first production was The Realization of the Negro’s Ambition (1916), which the Johnson’s made in direct response to D.W. Griffith’s racist Birth of a Nation. The Lincoln Motion Picture Company soon folded, but Johnson enjoyed a long and prolific career, retired from film in 1950, and passed away in 1978 at the age of 96.
Hubert Fauntleroy Julian – Born Huberto Fauntleroyana Julian in Trinidad in 1897, but better known to the world as the Black Eagle, Julian was a world famous aviator and soldier of fortune. Something of a controversial figure in the 1920s and 30, Julian was a supporter of Marcus Garvey and one of the first, if not the first black men to get his pilot’s license. Julian became known as a showman by flying his plane over rallies for Garvey and performing aerial stunts. He unsuccessfully attempted a transatlantic flight from New York to Africa in 1924, and barely survived when his plane crashed into the ocean. He successfully made the trip five years later. In 1931, Julian set the non-stop non-refueling aviation endurance record with a flight of 84 hours and 33 minutes. He also toured with an all-black flying circus known as The Five Blackbirds. When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, the Black Eagle flew to the African nation to fight for Emperor Haile Selassie, who had made Julian an honorary citizen in 1930, and awarded him the rank of colonel. The Black Eagle passed away in New York City in 1983.
Ida B. Wells—Born in Mississippi just before the Emancipation Proclamation, Ida B. Wells would go on to become one of the foremost advocates for equal rights, a pioneer of the modern civil rights movement, and a tenacious anti-lynching activist. Orphaned at the age of 16, Wells took it upon herself to raise and care for her siblings, and still managed to get an education, leading to careers as a teacher and journalist. Wells began crusading for the rights of others at an early age, and her list of accomplishments is impressive. By the 1890s she was one of the most prominent black leaders in America, as well as a highly regarded advocate for women’s rights. Wells founded the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, as well as the National Afro-American Council, which would go on to become the NAACP. Wells is also known for her anti-lynching campaign, and her militancy when it came to defending against white attackers. Between 1892 and 1894 she wrote and published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases and A Red Record, both of which dealt with lynching. Wells asserted that lynching was primarily a response to the economic progress of blacks, which threatened the white way of life and defied notions of black inferiority. In Southern Horrors she wrote of how to respond to the threat of lynching by white people: “The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.”
Lincoln Perry and Willie Best—Born in Florida in 1902, Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry would go on to become arguably the most controversial black actor in the history of motion pictures. Best know by his stage name Stepin Fetchit (above left), Perry became the embodiment of the negative stereotypes that portray black men as lazy, illiterate buffoons. Billed as “The Laziest Man in the World,” Stepin Fetchit was one of the most popular black actors of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, appearing in more than 50 films, and becoming a millionaire. In real life Perry was nothing like his screen persona. He was a highly literate man, who also had a writing career working for the Chicago Defender. In the 1960s he became involved with the Nation of Islam and became friends with legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. Stepin Fetchit became so popular that he spawned many imitators, including comedic actor Willie Best, who was best know by his stage name, Sleep ‘n’ Eat. Best’s career started several years after Perry’s and would actually go on to be more prolific, with more that 120 roles. Working in both film and television, Best appeared alongside such notable actor as Humphrey Bogart and Bob Hope, who called Best “the best actor I know.” Like Stepin Fetchit, Sleep ‘n’ Eat was a comedic performer who played lazy, superstitious simpletons and both became symbols of controversy for the derogatory roles they played. And while Stepin Fetchit is still remembered—most often in a negative context—Sleep ‘n’ Eat has been largely forgotten. Despite the stereotypical roles played by both men, they should also be remembered for being talented performers and major personalities in the entertainment business.
Mary Ellen Pleasant—Much has been written about the woman known to many as Mammy Pleasant, but so much of it is tall tales and legends, it is difficult to know what is true and what is not. What is known is that Mary Ellen Pleasant was a famous abolitionist and Underground Railroad operator who was born in the early 1800s (reports vary on her birth, placing it somewhere between 1814 and 1817). In her memoirs, she claimed to be the daughter of a voodoo priestess and the son of the governor of Virginia. In the 1820s she worked as a bonded servant in Massachusets, eventually earning her freedom, and becoming friends with several white families involved in the abolitionist movement. Pleasant managed to successfully pass for white while establishing herself as a successful businesswoman and becoming increasingly involved with the Underground Railroad. She relocated to San Francisco in the late 1840s, and may or may not have owned and operated a bordello. Likewise, there are rumors that she may have helped fund John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, but no one knows for sure (her gravestone reads “She Was a Friend of John Brown”). Pleasant’s time in San Francisco was marked with political activism and championing human rights. But her work earned her enemies who went out of their way to smear her name, often claiming she practiced voodoo and had actually killed people. Despite the controversy surrounding her, Mammy Pleasants was referred to a “The Mother of Human Rights in California.”